Rhodri Morgan – 2003 Speech to Labour Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, to the 2003 Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth on 28th September 2003.

Conference, twelve months ago, in the steamy heat of Blackpool, I suggested to you that, if we could draw on the determined effort of the whole Labour movement, we in Wales were in a position to take outright control at this year’s Assembly elections.

Well, we make that effort, we took outright control and today I’m here to thank everyone in the Labour family who helped to make it happen.

Immediately after that election, the Labour Party in Wales met together in a special conference in Cardiff.

What I said on that Saturday seems to me to be even more important today.

We fought our Welsh Assembly campaign as the most united Party which I could ever remember.

United Parties win elections. Divided Parties lose them.

It’s the simplest law of successful politics – and all of us need to remember that today.

And by all of us, I mean what I say.

I mean the platform, as well as the people in the hall.

I mean those who get elected, as well as those who help to get them elected.

I mean the trade unions, as well as political wing of this Movement.

We win when we are united for two main reasons.

Unity means that we get our message across in a direct way, without the discord which disunity brings. When we are all really singing from the same hymn sheet, then not only do we make more noise –  we make it in harmony.

But united parties don’t only deliver messages better. They have better messages to deliver.

I don’t underestimate, for a moment, the struggle which our Party has always had to wage, to get our messages across. The vested interests of power and privilege may change as the years go on – but they are always there, and the message of this Movement will always be – must always be – a message which the powerful and privileged will find so uncomfortable that they will wish to stifle and suppress it.

Let me give you just one example. For 18 years the Conservative Party made a concentrated attack upon our core public services. Nowhere was that attack more sustained, more insidious and more successful than in the case of NHS dentistry. Nor was that the whole of their plan. They wanted dentists out of the NHS, just as they had already got rid of opticians, before moving on to family doctors next.

Since 1997, we have had to pick up the pieces and grow back dental services in parts of Wales where they had been completely abandoned. Since that time, because of the decisions which Labour has made, 31 practices have been expanded and 9 competely new ones opened, 90 dentists have benefited and 52,000 extra NHS places have been created.

Of course, there is more which needs to be done. Many of you will have seen pictures of the queues which formed when an additional 300 NHS places were on offer at a West Wales dental practice over the summer.

But what are the lessons which are really to be drawn from this story?

Firstly, it reminds us, if we needed any reminding, that the NHS remains an institution which people in Wales, and beyond, value beyond almost any other. When people who had been denied such services were offered an opportunity to take them up again, then they welcome it hugely.

Secondly, that the expansion in services only came about because of the actions of government – a Labour government in Westminster prepared to provide the additional investment and a Labour government in the Assembly committed to the NHS. Comrades, that so many should have been denied treatment for so long is a disgrace – but it is a disgrace which only this Party is committed to putting right.

Those 300 places which were the focus of so much attention are only one part of the 6 practices where new and expanded NHS services have been provided in West Wales over the past two years. Even since those pictures appeared earlier in the summer, a  further practice has been expanded in the same part of Wales, using a grant from the Welsh Assembly Government to create 1,300 new NHS places, guaranteed for the next five years.

The third thing we learn from all this is that, even when we are extending services, even when we are doing so in a way which so clearly meets a powerfully felt need, the media, and our opponents, will try to find a way to portray all this as some sort of government-induced crisis. It really is the height of hypocrisy to hear the Tories bleating about a lack of NHS dentists when they set out so deliberately to decimate that service.

That’s why, looking back at our experience in the Assembly elections, I want to suggest to you that parties which win elections don’t just get better at getting their message across. They have to have the best messages – and that means messages which unite us, rather than divide us: messages which connect us with our supporters in the country, rather than cutting us off from them, messages which tell a real story, of real policies, benefiting real people.

In the Assembly elections, we deliberately set out to make our Manifesto the centre-piece of our campaign. It’s become fashionable in some quarters to look down on Manifestos, to portray them as irrelevant to voters and a weak guide to what governments elected upon them will actually deliver. We tried to break out of that destructive circle by concentrating our Manifesto upon a series of practical measures which make a day-to-day difference in the lives of those who look to this Party to be on their side, the vehicle for help and for improvement.

So, over the next four years, we will abolish all prescription charges in Wales and we will see to it that free breakfasts are on offer in all our primary schools.

Why did we chose to make such commitments? Well, they bring direct health and education benefits. When I visited the South Wales Valleys, in the run up to the election, a headteacher of 30 years standing told me that free breakfasts had made the single greatest contribution to learning, of all the many initiatives which she had witnessed during her career. Children who begin the day properly fed are children who are ready for learning, whose behaviour is better, whose sociability is improved and whose alertness and receptivity has been secured.

But there are vital economic as well as social benefits which these measures bring. In Wales, we have to tackle the problems of economic inactivity – people who could be in work, but who the Tories pushed onto the scrap heap. Thanks to the  astonishing success of Labour’s record since 1997, the Welsh economy has been transformed. During that period we have closed two thirds of the employment gap between Wales and the rest of the UK. Employment in Wales has increased by 78,000 comparing the three months to July this year with the same period a year ago. The employment rate in Wales is now higher than all the G7 countries (apart, of course from the UK) and higher than all EU countries apart from Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. And unemployment has fallen in the less well-off parts of the country at an even faster rate than elsewhere.

Now we have to help back into work, those people who, after two decades of Tory neglect, have come to see themselves as cut off from the economic mainstream. To deliver that assistance we have to smooth the path back to work. Prescriptions are free when out of work. Now, in Wales, they’ll be free when working as well.

Conference, the experience in Wales has been that when the Labour Movement offers the sort of policies which connect in this direct way with people’s lives, then this Party remains the natural home for all those who understand that we all do best when we know that we are  part one of another, stronger when united than divided, shaping that society which gave us our chances, so that there are better chances still for those who come after us.

Now, of course, not all our political opponents understand the importance of this sense of inter-dependence.

Our friends in Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Independence Party, have just spend an agonising weekend deciding that independence is, after all, the main aim of their game. Or at least for some of them. Their new President, Dafydd Iwan, a plucker of the more morose form of folk song, was enthusiastically in favour of  a seat at the United Nations, a Welsh army, navy and airforce and, as far as I know, a Welsh man on the moon. Their former president, Lord Elis Thomas, the far from morose Presiding Officer of the Assembly, is adamantly opposed. Their former, and now born-again leader at the Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, nailed his colours so firmly to the fence that he didn’t vote at all.

Ieuan Win – Ieuan Lose – Now it’s Ieuan abstain.

Chair, we live in an interdependent world. What each one of us does in our own lives directly affects the lives of others. What each of us does in our communities affects other communities too. This idea is etched deep in the Welsh political psyche. It is the ethical foundation of our socialism. It is the reason why the narrow nationalist notion of independence is such a one-way ticket to political obscurity.

That’s why when we face the electorate again next year, in our local government and European elections, and in the general election which will follow, it is not the nationalists who we need to draw back to the attention of the voters. It is the Tories, with their own brand of narrow minded malice, whom we will have to hold to account. Now, for two general elections in a row, Wales has been that socialist nirvarnah – a Tory-free zone. And we plan to keep it that way again next time. In the Assembly, however, our voting system means that we’ve been able to see that endangered species – the Welsh Conservative – at close quarters. And the truth is that they are both nastier and more resilient than we sometimes remember. Nastier in their willingness to attack every progressive measure. More resilient in their ability to attract a core vote based around the worst sort of political appeal to fear and to envy.

Conference, we’ve had a Labour Government in Westminster for six years. We’ve had a wholly Labour Government at the Assembly for less than six months.

Now we have a golden chance, the chance of a generation, to use out combine will and our combined skill to make those changes which matter to Labour voters up and down the land.

And when we do that together, we will not let you down.